Tuesday, September 19, 2017

20 Questions 7 - What to ask about your story’s beginning

Beginnings are the way you and your story are introduced to readers (or the audience). Consider why someone might have come to your story. Perhaps, to be entertained. Maybe to learn something new or to experience a time, culture, or situation about which they know little or nothing. Some people come to stories to be distracted or consoled. Some come for lessons and comfort. And some are attracted just by the beauty of the language as expressed through a fresh voice.

Almost everyone comes to a story for emotion. The promise of a thrill or a laugh or a good cry must be there from the start or another story, which will provide what the reader is looking for, will be selected instead.

It's also the writer's responsibility to keep the reader engaged. New writers especially do not get much leeway on this. The benefit of the doubt – is this worth my time? – may not last any longer than the first few sentences.

To help you bulletproof your beginning, I developed these questions. Not all need to be answered. (You know your story and your audience.) But I hope at least a few will help you to spruce up and make a good first impression.
  1. Does the beginning raise questions? It doesn't necessarily have to jump right into the story question, but there should be at least one question that causes a reader to turn pages.
  2. Does the story move? Without bullets flying or death-defying leaps, is there sense that you've dropped into something that's already in progress? 
  3. Is the reader spared a slog through description and back story many skip past nowadays?
  4. Does the story sound promising from the first few sentences? Is there an intriguing hook? Or an arresting opening image? Or a line of dialogue that would make you eavesdrop on the subway?
  5. Is it clear? While mystery is okay, readers should believe that everything in the first pages will make sense sooner or later. And they should not need to reread any of the sentences.
  6. Does the reader know who the main character is? Do they know who they are supposed to empathize with?
  7. Is empathy supported? While characters don't need to be likable, they do need to have human experiences that matter emotionally illustrated within the first few pages.
  8. Do readers know the stakes? And are they high enough to worry about? Do they create a sense of foreboding were tension?
  9. Is the setting expressed with enough detail to allow the reader to participate? Is there enough description and enough stated so the reader can follow the path to immersion in the story world? Do indicators, early enough so that the reader does not need to revise initial impressions about the setting (unless this is intentional, as is sometimes the case in speculative fiction and comedy)? Note: setting includes era, season, and time of day. Not just place.
  10. Is there a perspective, the use of language, or a voice that elicits confidence and may even charm the reader?
  11. Are the rules of this world, even if it is mimetic, presented so all that happens can be understood and the reader will not feel anything that occurs is a cheat or unfair?
  12. Are there hooks? Does the writer plant intriguing and question-raising information from the very start and throughout the first pages of the story?
  13. Is anticipation built? Does the reader quickly have expectations that will be fulfilled, exceeded, and manipulated for surprise and delight?
  14. Are clichés avoided? Both in terms of phrases and situations (waking up, arriving, dealing with amnesia).
  15. Does the story, even in the first few pages, hint at the overall theme?
  16. Are the senses engaged? Is the reader encouraged to experience the story in ways beyond just hearing and seeing and are these in a reasonable and natural balance with the material?
  17. Are the scenes in the beginning of the story well-constructed, with clear motives, beginnings, middles, and ends?
  18. Within the first few pages, are there any surprises? Does it go beyond the expected in ways that promise entertaining revelations?
  19. Is it clear within the first few pages what the genre is? Will the reader know what kind of a book he or she picked up after the first few pages, or, for instance, will they be liable to experience disappointment when they realize that sexy romance is really a horror story?
  20. Does the reader have a reason to keep turning the pages after the first scene, the second scene, the third scene, and however many scenes make up the beginning of the story?
It's easy to see that wonderful beginnings are difficult to write. Here's a tip -- don't worry consciously about any of these during the drafting stage. Keep these questions for the rewrite. Also, when drafting the story, be aware that you probably won't know the ideal starting point until you are well into the work. Many writers aren't clear on where the story begins until the first draft is done, and it is very common to end up cutting the first pages, scenes, and even chapters. Does this sound discouraging? There's no reason for lamentations. It's just part of the process that reveals the best beginning to bring to your readers.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

20 Questions 6 - Villain vivisection

Not all stories have villains, but all commercial stories have antagonists. Man against man, man against nature, man against himself — you know the drill. And if you've been a storyteller for any time at all you understand the value of having powerful antagonists.

Character change is a big part of why we come to stories, and a good antagonist, opposing the hero or heroine, forces change. So it's worth digging more deeply into your antagonist to be sure you're getting everything you can out of him, her, or it.

I've listed 20 questions that I hope will be helpful. I focused on the idea of a villain, but it shouldn't be too difficult to interpolate these questions to whatever antagonist you have in your story.
  1. Is your villain active? Does he or she plan and execute work that impedes, distresses, and discourages your protagonist?
  2. Does your villain take advantage of the flaws and weaknesses of your hero/heroine?
  3. Does your villain go as far as possible in creating havoc and damage? Is the harm done extreme and is the villain willing to sacrifice to make it as difficult as possible for the hero/heroine?
  4. Is the villain vigilant and attentive? Does the villain react to what the protagonist does? 
  5. Are his or her responses timely, apt, and punishing?
  6. Is the villain humanized? Are there enough dimensions so that readers might suffer the discomfort of identifying with him or her?
  7. Does the villain change as the story progresses – not in terms of focus, but in terms of improved ability, knowledge, and judgment?
  8. Does the villain surprise? Are some of the choices unexpected while being reasonable?
  9. Is the villain in some way a reflection of the protagonist? Would the hero or heroine feel uneasy about some of the things they have in common with the villain?
  10. Is the villain powerfully motivated? Are there reasons for his or her goal and do those reasons push him or her hard?
  11. Does the villain at some point offer the hero or heroine a choice? (This might include an opportunity for them to join forces.)
  12. Is the villain powerful? 
  13. Is he or she at least the equal of the protagonist in terms of intelligence, resources, and options?
  14. Are the villains plans and goals clear? Where possible, is what the villain wants tangible?
  15. Is the villain's potential for causing harm illustrated early enough in the story to make readers dread his or her success?
  16. In addition to keeping the protagonist from his or her goal, to the actions of the villain undermine the hero or heroine's sense of identity or self?
  17. Is there a time where it's clear that there's more to the villain than meets the eye?  Does a backstory add texture and depth?
  18. Are there important scenes where secrets about the villain are revealed?
  19. Is the villain fresh? Is there something so distinctive and interesting about him or her that his or her mere presence makes the story special?
  20. Do the actions and intentions of the villain support the story's theme? (Often, the villain stands in for the status quo or society's rules or values.)
A great villain can be the spark and the life of your story. He or she will torture your hero or heroine in ways you wouldn't dare. The remarks that come out of the mouths of villains are often so good, writers steal them (with modifications) for their heroes and heroines.

That means you may find this set of questions in this series to be the most fun to work with. And that will increase the delight of your readers.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

20 Questions 5 - Make your main character's obstacles more challenging

In stories, characters never change except in the face of adversity. And the conflict they face comes when what they want is blocked in some way. This is where setbacks, sacrifices, and (often) nasty surprises come in.

A sure way to improve your story is to tune up these obstacles so they demand the most of your main characters. Make them fierce. Make things go wrong. Don’t turn away from torturing your characters. To help you in this (sometimes painful) project, I offer 20 more questions for your story, these dealing with the obstacles the heroes and heroines must face.
  1. Are all the obstacles expected by the genre and logline included?
  2. Can you make the obstacles more challenging for your main character? 
  3. Will readers have doubts about whether they can be overcome?
  4. Are the consequences for failure or the required sacrifices as extreme as you can make them?
  5. Do the obstacles escalate in difficulty each time they crop up in the story? Did you avoid plateauing or deescalation?
  6. Is taking on an obstacle irreversible? Is there no way to go back? Must the hero or heroine go through or abandon the quest?
  7. Are choices clear and reasonable? Have you avoided advancement of the plot by stupidity?
  8. Does the main character have agency? Will it be impossible for the obstacle to be overcome without the choices and actions of the protagonist? Is deus ex machina avoided?
  9. Do some of the choices for dealing with an obstacle represent dilemmas, where neither choice is desirable or without important costs?
  10. Do all the obstacles upset YOU personally? Do you suffer along with your protagonist?
  11. Are all the obstacles related to the goal? Do they make a difference? Are they of the right scale?
  12. Does each obstacle advance the protagonist along his or her character arc, forcing change and growth?
  13. Are the obstacles visceral? Can they be imagined and related to by readers?
  14. Would at least some of the obstacles be insurmountable by the protagonist at the beginning of the story?
  15. Do obstacles compromise the fulfillment of as many of the protagonist's needs (as reasonable), up and down Maslow’s hierarchy?
  16. At one time or another, is the hero or heroine challenged in a variety of ways (e.g., physically, socially, intellectually, morally, psychologically)?
  17. Are some of the solutions surprising while still being fair?
  18. Do any obstacles threaten prized relationships?
  19. Do obstacles challenge the protagonist’s self-image?
  20. Do villains get more savvy and harsh with each obstacle they present? 
Without obstacles, a happy ending isn't earned (and a tragedy can fade to so what?).  By making the obstacles more daunting, the story inevitable becomes stronger, improving both the characters and the plot.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

20 Questions 4 - True Goals for your story’s hero/heroine

Fundamental to storytelling is having a character who wants something. In commercial fiction, the character wants something external and tangible. Michael Hauge says you should be able to take a picture of it.  (Think of the Death Star exploding or Rocky still standing at the bell for the last round.)

This is not to say that there can’t be goals like gaining respect or that internal needs, like managing anger, can’t be satisfied. These add to the texture and depth of any story and can make a commercial story more engaging, valuable, and artistic. But, without a clear goal, a story can lose focus.

Some goal development has been covered in other posts, especially in Problems with the Premise series and John Marlow’s lesson on writing loglines, but here I’ll present 20 questions that might be a good reference and prompt fresh thinking. As usual, work with those that fit your intentions and feel free to ignore the rest.

Note: In many stories, the main character has a goal that changes to the fundamental story goal by the beginning of the second act. That’s fine. It provides a way to ease readers from a familiar world to one that is more challenging. Ultimately, however, the goal is part of the story question that keeps readers turning pages. Will the two lovers get married? Will Ulysses get home?  Will Frodo destroy the Ring?
  1.     Is the protagonist’s goal clear? Heinlein wrote that his best writing education came from a Naval Academy course where students had to write unambiguous orders. If anyone could read them in a different way, it was a failed lesson.
  2.     Could one picture capture achievement of the goal?
  3.     Is the value of the goal apparent? Can readers connect with the benefits for the protagonist or society?
  4.     Does failure to achieve the goal carry a price? Will something really bad happen or something important be lost if it is not achieved?
  5.     Is commitment to the goal irreversible for the protagonist? Is there a point where he or she cannot go back and live the life presented at the beginning of the story?
  6.     Is the protagonist the right person to achieve the goal? (This one is tricky. Often it is best if the protagonist appears to be completely overmatched, even the least likely person. Frodo is a great example.)
  7.     Does the protagonist have the agency necessary to achieve the goal? That is, is the main character able to take the actions needed to succeed? (Also, tricky. Actions could include training to get the required skills or dealing with a personal flaw or inducing others to help.)
  8.     Is the goal personal for the main character? Does it connect with a need and carry emotional weight? (The truth about this one does not have to be apparent to the protagonist, but it must become apparent to the writer.)
  9.     Does the goal itself suggest tasks that must be accomplished? Does it create expectations that engage the readers?
  10.     Does the goal suggest obstacles and even seem impossible?
  11.     Can the goal be bigger? Can it mean more and be harder to achieve?
  12.     Can the goal be stretched to cover several levels of Maslow’s hierarchy?
  13.     Does the goal have emotional impact? Either directly or through empathy with the main character?
  14.     Can you list all the contextual information that must be clear to the reader before the goal can be fully appreciated? (For instance, the hero’s reputation or past failures, society’s rules, and consequences for those who have tried to achieve this goal in the past.)
  15.     Is the goal appropriate to the genre and tone of the work? (In general, love stories are not central to horror stories and would be at odds with Poe-esque dread or Lovecraftian grue.)
  16.     Does the goal’s achievement bring a boon to society?
  17.     Does the pursuit of the goal force the character to deal with a flaw and grow as a person?
  18.     Will success require face-to-face engagement between the protagonist and the antagonist, a classic “roll in the ditch”? (Obviously, this is not relevant for every story, but it is always worth considering.)
  19.     Is the goal, as understood by the protagonist, worth the sacrifices and effort needed? (The reader should never think that, if the hero/heroine had any brains, he/she would quit.)
  20.     When the goal is achieved, with it be unmistakable that the main character earned the success? Or will it seem as if luck or outside forces played a hand?
I’ve written these with the assumption of the main character’s success, but failure is an option. And bittersweet endings can be delightful. Also, the paths to even the clearest goals should have surprises along the way. Clarity does not mean an absence of twists or secrets.

I’ve worked one-on-one with dozens of students as they’ve developed the premises for their stories, and making a goal as good as it can be is the second hardest task. (The hardest is giving a beloved protagonist a real flaw.) The most common problem is the writer presents a goal that’s internal, usually tied to the protagonist’s wellbeing. You can’t take a photograph of that. After that, goals usually need to be tweaked to be more ambitious. And then, the protagonist, as described, is not the best one to take on the goal — which leads to work in character development.

Next time, I’ll present questions on obstacles so you can properly torture your poor protagonist.










Tuesday, August 22, 2017

20 Questions 3 - Exploring your story's world

A common problem with stories I judge for contests is the inclusion of scenes that are set in empty space, with the writer providing no genuine sense of setting. A deep understanding of the plot and the protagonist is essential, but orienting readers in a clear and believable setting is the only way to get them lost in your story.

In addition to inviting people into a place (and time) you've created and making them comfortable, the setting can contribute to the overall tone of the story and situate readers in a genre. Perhaps most important, it situates the characters, reflecting (and sometimes creating) the challenges they face, providing contrast, and heightening tension.

Of course, for science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the setting can be essential to what the story is about. Writers working in those genres frequently need to build their worlds in great detail and set up the rules in clear ways so what happens makes sense. In fact, I've advocated using some of the techniques of speculative fiction worldbuilding for contemporary, mimetic fiction.

The bottom line is setting has value and the detail with which you plan and present it will depend on the genre, the readers' needs, and the purposes you have in you scenes (and the overall novel). So please keep that in mind as you look through these 20 questions to explore your fictional world. Some will surely be more valuable than others, but I hope a least a few will inspire new ideas for you.
  1. Are your readers oriented in space? Does they have the clues they need to imagine the room or landscape in which the action takes place? This includes the size of the space (open? claustrophobic?), the people present, and the significant objects (certainly, any that will be put to use, but also those that contribute to tone)?
  2. Are your readers oriented in time? If it's a different era, are clues to this clear or is is made explicit? If it is relevant, is the time of day obvious? Are their clues to what season it is? If time has passed since the last scene or if this is a flashforward or flashback, do readers know this from the first paragraphs?
  3. Is the weather accounted for in some way?
  4. Do the senses help immerse readers in the scene? Does this go beyond sight and dialogue to include ambient sound, touch, taste, heat, and humidity? Is the setting comfortable? Or uncomfortable in some way?
  5. Is the setting experienced through a point of view character, with attention to what the character would know and notice?
  6. Does the environment include threats (weapons? cliffs?), disturbing elements (foul smells, dirt, dead bodies, creaking floorboards), or attractors (beautiful scenery, pleasant smells, a banquet, sexy people)?
  7. Is gravity relevant? Is the floor tilted or slippery? Is the earth quaking? Is there a thirty-story drop just outside the window?
  8. What emotions does the setting evoke in the viewpoint character? How do these change throughout the scene? 
  9. Does the setting trigger phobias for the point-of-view (POV)  character? Or does it prompt memories? 
  10. How is the setting assessed by the character? How does it figure into his or her strategy and attainment of goals?
  11. If this scene revisits an setting shown earlier, how has it changed? How is it different or more meaningful for the viewpoint character?
  12. Does irony play a role? Do readers know things about the setting that the viewpoint character does not?
  13. Are there any clues planted in the setting that will pay off later on in the story? Does what is described set up and justify answers, endings, surprises, and revelation of secrets?
  14. Within the way the POV character presents the scene (either by first-person narration or the third-person limited perspective), are their indications of who the character is on a deeper level?
  15. Without distracting readers from the story, is the scene appropriately entertaining and interesting? Does it provide information, paint pictures, and invite further investigation?
  16. Are the elements of the setting the best choices to create conflict, expose the protagonist, heighten tension, and set the mood? 
  17. Does the setting align with the theme and help to build the story?
  18. Have you, as the writer, been selective? Including all elements that are essential to the scene and the larger story? Eliminating that which is not essential?
  19. Does the setting have its own history? Its own future?
  20. Are any of the elements symbolic? Do they add to the story's effectiveness at an unconscious level, allude to myths, or provide keys to deeper interpretations?
Pacing the description of the setting so the story doesn't stall often takes trial and error. Getting the balance right between the amount of description and the amount of action and dialogue can be tricky. Because of this (and because beginning writers overdo it), some writers skimp on providing information about the setting. The way I approach it is considering the setting like a secondary character in the story. This helps me to be sure that it is presented completely without taking over.

Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on the protagonists goals.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

20 Questions 2 - A closer look at your hero or heroine

The argument about what's more important, plot or protagonist, goes back over two thousand years. (Aristotle said plot.) What's indisputable is that readers must identify with the main character. They don't need to like him or her (though that helps), but they do need to have empathy for the protagonist.

As I poke at main characters, my mind is apt to run Rogers and Hammerstein's Getting to Know You as background music.

Getting to know you
Getting to know all about you
Getting to like you
Getting to hope you like me


Well, who can account for brains overdosing on caffeine? 

In the past I've written about getting to know your charactersdeepening connections, and bonding with them by asking revealing questions. So it makes sense to go at this from the angle of 20 questions. The goal here is to build your appreciation for the main character (though you can use the same approach for other characters) and to have a better sense of the specific ways he or she will respond to challenges (aka, tortures) you'll hit them with.
  1. What is my protagonist's external goal? What is he or she willing to sacrifice (and change) for? 
  2. Why does the story's protagonist want the goal so much? How will its successful attainment be fulfilling?
  3. What does my protagonist really need? What will make him or her a more complete and fully realized person?
  4. What does my protagonist fear? What would damnation be in his or her eyes?
  5. What is the protagonist's main virtue? Main flaw?
  6. What would the story's main character do only under extreme duress?
  7. How has the protagonist been hurt or traumatized?
  8. How do I connect with the protagonist? What part of me gives him or her life?
  9. Have I gone past the default of imagining a character like me to explore characters of different sexes, cultures, religions, abilities, etc., respectfully taking advantage of the full range of human experience?
  10. How will readers connect with the protagonist and why?
  11. What are the protagonist's most distinctive and important mannerisms?
  12. What are the protagonist's most distinctive and important physical attributes?
  13. Have I imagined the character in motion? Walking? Running? Climbing stairs? Dancing? Playing a sport?
  14. Have I imagined the character in a comfortable place, completely at ease and able to be his/her unguarded self?
  15. Have I imagined the character in a strange or hostile environment?
  16. Have I imagined the character celebrating, grieving, enraged, determined, joking, and otherwise emotionally aroused? Have I imagined transitioning from one strong emotion to another?
  17. Have I placed the character in relation to other characters? Do I know him or her as a social creature?
  18. Do the protagonist's most important aspects come across in a timely manner in the story?
  19. What is it about this protagonist that makes him or her the best character to act in the story?
  20. Does the protagonist have agency? Can he or she act to achieve the story goal and answer the story question?
Okay, I could go on, but I hope there's enough here to intrigue you. While I had to work to get the questions for testing your plot, these gushed out, and I had to select those I thought were essential or most apt to provoke fresh thinking. The list could have been 100 questions. You might see if you can build your own list and discover which provide the biggest payoffs as you develop your stories.

Next time, I'll provide 20 questions on story settings.



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

20 Questions 1: Testing your plot

Under the best of circumstances, plotting can be tricky. The goal of the story, after all, is to get readers engaged and keep them engaged all the way to the satisfying conclusion. It's easy to miss steps or to get diverted into subplots or to have the story plateau.

The first thing you need to avoid this (unless you have an amazing memory) is some sort of summary of the plot. This may take the form of an outline or a narrative that takes a few pages or Post-it notes populating applying board. The important thing is to have something concise enough to make it easy to identify the problems and opportunities in your work – whether that is simply the plan for the story you intend to write or a completed draft.

If you have that, you're ready to take a closer look at your plot using these 20 questions.
  1. Which scenes are part of your main plot and which are related to subplots? (There can be scenes that serve more than one purpose.) The best way to determine which scenes are part of your main plot is to look at your logline. If it doesn't relate to the purpose of the logline and move the reader toward the answer to the story question, it's either part of the subplot or it doesn't belong in the story.
  2. Is the story of logic solid? Does one scene follow inevitably from the previous scene? (I test this with Kitchen's reverse logic approach. You can also use the simpler approach from the South Park guys -- That is, scenes can be connected by "therefore" or "but.")
  3. Is the protagonist's goal clear? Often, the goal changes at the end of the first act, but readers need to sense that they know what the protagonist is trying to achieve every step of the way. And, for commercial fiction, the goal has to be external (although there also can be an internal goal).
  4. Is there a set of tasks the protagonist must achieve to succeed? It's good to list these out. You should have enough tasks to support the length of the work and the level of difficulty should rise as the story proceeds.
  5. Does the plot include twists, turns, and secrets? Every protagonist approaches achieving the goal with imperfect knowledge and faces and setbacks. This is what makes the story more interesting than going to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner.
  6. Are there obstacles? Usually this comes in the form of somebody who opposes the protagonist – the antagonist, often a villain. But there also can be institutional problems and the protagonist's flaws can get in the way (which is great, because that allows for growth and the character arc).
  7. Does the setting makes things more difficult for the protagonist? This doesn't mean that every story should be set in the desert or prison. Ordinary People is set in a comfortable, middle-class household – but it's as neat, sterile, and cold as the story's antagonist. (Also, a rich, evocative, and intriguing setting may be more important than one that supports the plot. It's your choice.)
  8. Does the plot fulfill genre requirements? Most commercial genres bring with them expectations for readers. Romance readers, for instance, expect a "meet cute" scene, a first kiss, a grand gesture, etc.
  9. Does your plot have a beginning, middle, and end? Aristotle says the story should begin as late as possible and end as early as possible. If the story can still be told by cutting early scenes and removing some of the last scenes, that's the way to go (usually).
  10. Are there any momentum killers? Are there scenes that exist just to provide back story? Are there scenes that belong in a different book? Are there scenes that develop character but don't move the story forward?
  11. Do your subplots reflect and support your main plot? 
  12. Do your subplots demonstrate other possibilities, especially things that might go wrong?
  13. Is the motivation of the protagonist reasonable and are the actions taken within his or her level of competence? Though it is essential that a protagonist change within a story, radical and unearned powers or actions taken just to move the plot forward, without good reason, we can the plot.
  14. Is this plot original enough? Are the developments and the choices made by the characters cliché and familiar? Is much of the story to predictable?
  15. Is there another story that can serve as a reference point or a model for this story? Do you know of a work that is worth comparing your story to so that possibilities for pacing and developments and reveals aren't missed?
  16. Do you feel a connection to the story? A lot of good ideas aren't good ideas for every writer. Looking at the plot as it exists, is something missing for you? 
  17. Do you have a passion for this story? 
  18. Could some changes bring that out for you?
  19. From the plot alone, will readers get excited? 
  20. Is this plot inherently emotional and intriguing?
The point of these questions isn't to have good answers for all of them. Plenty of excellent works break rules and deliberately leave out elements that are reflected in these questions. The goal here is to determine if there are hidden flaws in the plot or if there are ways it could be pushed to make it better. I'm also hoping that some of these questions will be fun for you to think about and explore.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Writing Experiments 2 - Four tougher exercises to build your skills

Last time, I provided some simple exercises so you could deliberately challenge yourself as a writer and deepen your skills. I ended with a promise to suggest more challenging work this time.

As a pure expression of story and one of the toughest exercises, I'd suggest creating a logline. You need to know who the protagonist is, what he or she wants, what the obstacles are, and what the stakes are. John Marlow provides an excellent tutorial on how to do this. You also might want to read my Problems with the Premise series.

You can dig more deeply into this by writing an introduction to the work (or a chapter), with the characters, situation, goals, and risks involved. If you want to have some fun and really push yourself, write it as a poem. Copy the form of a narrative poem or the best of epic poetry, if you wish. The Iliad? Not bad. But, for this exercise, I prefer doing something more like The Ballad of Gilligan's Island.

Something about expressing the essence of a story in rhyme provides focus and, as an extra advantage, gets your premise stuck in your head.

To know more about your characters, I recommend interviewing them. Character descriptions and lists of traits help, too, but they tend to be bloodless and a lot less fun.

To dig more deeply into a setting, visualize every detail you can. Use the best words for each object (goblet or tumbler, rather than glass). Qualify with textures, colors, light and shadow. This should be a long list. Now take in the other senses. Music? Other sounds? Odors? Drafts? Dank air? Is anything in motion? Changing?

Now, look at your list and highlight whatever will be noticed or will influence the protagonist (or other key character).

Finally, think about the setting in terms of the reader. In particular, look for two things: critical information and mood.

By the time you're finished the setting exercise, you should have a deep understanding both of the elements that come together to create a sense of place and how they impact readers.

Exploring theme is another classic way to poke at your story. It's too easy to come up with a "There's no place like home" answer, so I use an essay method. This can provide a real push to get to the heart of a story, especially after the first draft is complete.

One of my favorite exercises (and a very tough one) is to reverse or invert a solid, well-known work. The best example of this is It's a Wonderful Life, which takes Dickens's A Christmas Carol and replaces the miser Scrooge with the overly generous George Bailey. Nothing gets your head into the structure of a story more completely than this exercise.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Writing Experiments 1 - Four simple exercises to build your skills

Most writers run across challenges in their work all the time. Characters who won't cooperate. Scenes that refuse to resolve. Ideas and situations that require research. Themes that cut too close to the bone.

Nonetheless, to reach your full potential, deliberate experimentation may be needed. It's common to play around with exercises earlier in your writing career, but this can be invaluable to writers at all levels. In fact, it may be more helpful to set aside time to break away from familiar work and take on an exercise after the basics of craft have been learned.

A good place to start, is simply to take a scene you've written and rewrite it from a different point of view. Consider, for instance, a first kiss scene in a romance. If it is written from the perspective of the heroine, redoing it from the hero's point of view will provide insights on the characters and their relationship even if the rewrite never makes its way into the final manuscript.

In addition, that specific example shifts from writing in a female point of view to a male point of view. That sort of experiment can push a writer into an uncomfortable place if he or she has never written from the perspective of the opposite sex. In writing experiments, the degree of difficulty is usually a good measure of how much might be learned.

Another experiment is to write with the voice of a published author. This is generally more difficult than changing points of view. In my case, I was introduced to this exercise while in high school. I had to write out three scenes from Tolkien in longhand. One was the original, and two were created by me in the voice of the author. The next step was to hand pages around and see which ones other students identified as being the original scenes. In my case, my fake pages fooled all the other students. (That's when I began to suspect I was a writer.)

Note: This exercise does not have to be a recasting of a published scene. It can be something of your own, just written in someone else's voice. And, unless it's parody, these pages are for your work notebook, not for publication.

When you write in the voice of another author, you learn techniques and skills and rhythms and you build a sensitivity to vocabulary that can shape your own writing.

Still harder for most people is to create variations. The way to do this is to come up with 3 to 5 approaches to a writing task. I often will move from the logline I've created for a work to distinct ways to begin it. I always discover something unexpected and find my way to a better approach by doing this.

Note: this does not have to be restricted to the beginning of a long work. It's possible to write the equivalent of a logline for a chapter or even the scene. From that, creating variations works the same way.

For instance, your protagonist might need to have a repair done to his or her car while traveling on a long trip. The purpose of a scene might be to prevent the protagonist from leaving right away. This could be accomplished by discovering parts aren't available or the mechanic is antagonistic or their credit card has been canceled. Writing out these scenes where the protagonist must learn about the obstacle and respond to it can push your creative abilities and build your knowledge of the work itself.

I'll end with one of the easier experiments. This is simply to write the next scene in your story either by only using dialogue or by only using description. Essentially, this means creating a radio version or a silent movie version. (I understand this is a standard exercise for some film school classes.) Either approach will force a reassessment of how the purpose of such a scene might be accomplished. These versions (if you choose to do both) will differ in interesting ways. Chances are, each will force the exercise of new writing muscles. And one is likely to be more difficult and provide a better learning experience.

Next time, I'll look at some more challenging experiments and discuss what value they might provide.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Story Excitement 3 -- Sharing the fun

If you want your stories to thrill readers, the first step is usually to thrill yourself. I provided some ideas on how to do that in the first entry of this series and how to sustain it in the second.

Acting provides some guidance in sharing emotions. Traditionally, an actor works from the outside, accumulating specific, authentic details. He or she may add a prosthetic nose or cultivate a tic or walk in a specific manner to project the feelings of the character to the point where they come across (and often infect the actor).

Similarly, a writer will use the specifics of a character that readers identify to carry the sense of excitement to them. If your protagonist's heart is beating fast, chances are, so is the reader's. But a writer can do more. Mood can be created by the setting. (Think of almost anything by Edgar Alan Poe.) The writer can also create conflicts and obstacles that can quicken the pulse.

Scene construction can have a huge impact. Comic relief can distract the reader away from building tension so the ultimate impact hits all the harder. Beyond careful timing of secrets and revelations, the writer can make readers feel what the protagonist is unaware of. Irony is a powerful tool, well expressed by Hitchcock, who spoke of the suspense created when the audience knows a bomb is ticking and the character does not. 

Method acting pulls directly from your feelings, as discussed in the previous entries, but you can enhance through finding personal ways to connect with your material. This may be through imagery or sequences within the story that touch you, but, like actors, you can also use sense memory to call up situations (not explicit in your story) where you had relevant emotions.

Sharing the excitement may, however, take more than "feeling it." Everything has to be conveyed through written material, without the expression of your voice and body, so exaggeration is encouraged. Don't be rigorously realistic or shy about going over the top. You can always moderate later.

Finally, sharing the excitement is the perfect reason to be professional about the writing itself. Passive voice? Adverbs? Junk words (like just, even, almost)? All of these distance the reader and muddy the feelings. As do unnecessary dialogue tags and joining dialogue (or scenes) before the last possible moment or leaving it later than as soon as possible. Anything sloppy or unneeded takes away from the excitement.

But it may not be carelessness that holds you back. It could be a reticence about sharing emotion. We often value being "cool" or "in control." Forget that when you're writing fiction (and much of nonfiction). If you don't let loose (at least with the draft), you're cheating your readers and yourself.

Get excited.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Story Excitement 2 — Holding onto the thrill

Excitement can fuel the enthusiasm you need to get your story done. The beginning of Romancing the Stone provides a pretty good depiction of what can happen when a novelist is finishing the work. The words may pour out. Along with laughter and tears. I've known some writers who have said that there were large sections of writing where they were so physically and emotionally involved that they had no memory of the actual creation of the scenes.

On the other hand… commitment can wane as the writing continues for weeks, months, or years. Almost every novelists I've asked has said that the work feels so rotten at the one half to three quarters completion point that they are tempted to abandon it. (In fact, ask around and you'll find out there are a lot of partially finished novels in drawers and on hard disks.)

So, excitement from beginning to end is not guaranteed. How can it be maintained?

The primary tool I use, which also has been useful for some of my students, is to write a list of 10 to 20 reasons why the manuscript must be completed. These are written in full sentences, intended to communicate convincingly to the future self who is discouraged. They can range from the very practical (I have a contract, there's a market for this, an agent is waiting) to the aesthetic (the concept here presents beauty or raises questions) to a sense of justice (this reveals corruption in our society).

Another way to keep the enthusiasm is to take a deep breath and delve more deeply into one of the characters in the story. Often this means seeing the dark side of a character you love – not easy, but irresistible. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to put one of the characters into an intolerable situation. The more excruciating, the more compelling the story will become. Note: this situation does not need to be included in the final work. Its value comes from what it's does to help the writer connect more profoundly with his or her creation.

Raymond Chandler wrote, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." Certainly, if you can find a way to surprise yourself, if you can disrupt the story or depart from your outline, it's likely to engage you. Discomfort may be the first feeling, but if you stick it out, you're likely to feel the adrenaline. Taking a risk is always acceptable.

If you respond well to other stimuli – pictures, music, a cold shower, or a hot tub — go for it. I have a friend who picks up magazines when she gets stuck. As long as she sticks to the pictures, quirky, attention-grabbing photography will get her going again.

Connecting with an obsession in some way can also keep the fire going. Think of the elements that cause you to watch movies over and over again, games that you lose yourself in, even those thoughts that keep you up at night. Find a way – and it may involve more stream of consciousness than traditional writing – to feature something that obsesses you in your work in progress.

Finally, if you have a long-term relationship with someone, think about how you have been able to maintain that. Gifts? Finding common interests? Resisting temptations and distractions? Paying attention to needs and emotions? Each of these provides models for holding onto the thrill you feel for your work in progress. In other words, nothing beats persistence, imagination, and commitment for finding your way to a happy ending.

All this excitement is great for you as a writer working to get your manuscript finished. Often, what you feel as your writing is translated to readers without much effort. But sometimes, conveying that excitement is not automatic. And that's will talk about in the next entry in this series.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Story Excitement 1 - The joy of losing control

Do you wake up in the middle of the night with story ideas? Do you sit down to work and end up pacing? Do images bubble in your head  — too fast to keep them all — as you garden or shower or put on a load of laundry?

In my case, all of the above. Most days, it’s slogging away and finding the fun with effort -- only after a few sentences or paragraphs or pages begin to connect. But excitement is a part my experience, too. Neurons begin firing when a story idea hits or a character shares her mind or pictures flash in my head or I have nothing more than an uneasy feeling that edges toward panic attack (but in a good way).

Excitement. - To quote the Pointer Sisters, "I'm about to lose control and I think I like it."

Chances are, when you write, you have an expectation that people will be excited by your work. So excited they'll pay money for the experience. Where does that excitement come from? From you.

Not someone else. Many, many times, I've had writers talk about, work on, and even complete stories they felt were high concept or likely to pay off... but they were not THEIR stories. Not because the situations, worlds, or characters were strange to them. (Heck, I write SF and fantasy. Reality is very plastic for me.) They were not their stories because they did not have an emotional connection to what those stories.

Understand, I'm fine with experimentation and taking on challenges. Stephen King tossed Carrie in the trash because, on the surface, it was way beyond his experience. But it was at the core of what his writing was all about, so we can all be grateful his wife rescued the manuscript.

Life is sneaky. It can deliver you someone else's story. The aether is filled with great ideas. I've frequently pulled down many that I could not connect with in my gut or in my heart. Good ideas that worked and had commercial success. I have no regrets about leaving those alone. I only regret those that I took on and shouldn't have.

Because my experience in writing those stories, even when it was pleasant, never thrilled me. Or readers. Here are my indicators of true excitement:

Questions, questions, and more questions. Sometimes it starts slowly, but ideas that hang on to suggest a few questions, to send me to the Internet or the library for research, and then lead to cascading curiosity -- those are guaranteed to excite me.

Surprises. I've heard the best thing you can hear from a scientist looking at data is, "That can't be true." The insight, fact, or possibility that upends what I think is right may disturb me. It may agitate or frustrate me. But, on closer examination, it is almost surely going to get my juices flowing. I just have to let go. Lose control.

Movement. As I indicated above, there are times I can't stand still and I go marching around the house. The muse is upon me. It's not always pleasant. It is likely to mean hours of meandering until whatever that formless thing is starts to reveal itself enough so I can make a note, sketch a chart or picture, or blurt out dialogue. At that point, I'm all in.

Strange pieces come together in alarming ways. Probably most writers capture images and concepts every day. (If they're smart, they follow Bradbury's advice and jot them down in full sentences.) For me, most of these bits of flotsam and jetsam are never revisited. Some bubble up and go away. Some make amusing connections, entertaining me for an instant. A very few snap together in weird ways to create full-fledged monsters that demand my attention.

Can any of this be nurtured? For me, curiosity, getting out of my comfort zone, and just paying attention ensure exciting starting points for stories. I also keep track of what I respond to emotionally -- in life and in art. (If you don't know your twenty favorite movies, books, TV shows, etc., why not?)

Interviewing characters can get me traction, too. Especially when some of the zip of the story concept diminishes.  Telling a friend about the story can provide a focus that ups the excitement (but it can also provide a payoff for your exciting idea and make it lose its zest, so beware).

Overall, the easiest path to excitement in stories is being excited by life. This does not necessitate skydiving or running with the bulls. It does mean fully engaging and knowing your own heart. Because, ultimately, what is compelling to you is what connects with your true self.

Next time, I'll talk about maintaining excitement through the creation of stories that take time to create, like novels and feature scripts. And I'll conclude this series with ideas on how best to share excitement.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Revise for Readers 2 - Tough but vital fixes

Last time, I offered suggestions on possible story fixes based on audience needs and expectations. My aim was to provide a toolbox for easy repairs to stories that were, essentially, in good working order. "Almost there" stories may be the result of careful preparation or blind luck. I've had it turn out both ways.

In most cases, upon the completion of the first draft, there are likely to be bigger problems that can't be fixed quickly. Note: This is not the result of the story being bad. Some of the absolute best stories emerge from the first draft process as shambling monsters. So, love your baby, however it turns out – and get to work.

Returning to a reader-centered guide…

Diversion. That great premise you started with? You may have recognized a concept that had something more promising within it than came out in the telling. A fresh look might show that the full value of the concept didn't come through because of laziness (settling for clichés) or the terrifying nature of the full expression of your connection with the concept.

In the former case, it's a matter of raising the bar for yourself and finding fresher ideas and challenges for your characters. In the latter case, it may mean a full (but amazing and delightful) page one rewrite. What can push you into taking on such an enormous task? Knowing it's worth it. Having the couraged to take the risk. And sharing the astonishment of a high-wire act with your audience.

Knowledge/perspective/humor. Stale information is usually the results of someone thinking they know the answers (because they've seen that world in news reports and movies) or chasing a topic that has people excited but doesn't have the writer engaged and committed.

On a fundamental level, that means digging in and doing enough research to unearth surprising facts. (I even do this for worlds that are familiar to me.) Beyond interviews, library research, visiting locales, and such, knowledge enters a new space when received wisdom falls away and new pictures emerge. If you can, for instance, imagine a compelling alternate history without changing any established facts, that's intrinsically valuable.

I have, on occasion, totally transformed stories by changing the point-of-view character. Often, this involves a deeper understanding of the risks each character faces. But it also can be a simple recognition that one of the characters has a truly distinct perspective on life and on the events that transpire in the tale.

On humor, I had the good fortune of taking a course with Danny Simon, who worked on a lot of television programs and with golden age luminaries. One point advice he had was to get rid of the "joke jokes." These were the funny bits that did not fit the characters or the story.

The best humor — which comes out of who the characters are – is undercut by these jokes. Humor is tied to insights, quirky perspectives, and obsessions (especially blind obsessions). It's also frequently daring and antisocial. So, looking toward truth, authentic characters, and a recognition of human frailty will naturally improve the humor in your writing – provided you're funny.

Lessons/rehearsal for life. I think what gums up this part more than anything is not having anything to say. My assumption is that any story worth telling touches the writer in some way. It includes specifics that add dimensions to themes about life. It illustrates, often through candid disclosures, the struggle for wisdom. It respects the structure and tone of the myths that live in our bones. And it strips away those elements, no matter how entertaining, that obscure meaningful models for making difficult choices.

Understanding what you have to say often only emerges with a full draft and a discovery of the theme. And it's a big deal for revisions because, minimally, cutting, reordering of scenes and reconceiving situations in the story will be necessary. Just going through bit by bit looking for alignment is a major task -- but the payoff is a story that works on a higher level. 

Promises. One thing I try to do is keep genre commitments to readers in unexpected ways. Nothing is staler than a first kiss you seeing 20 times before. Sex scenes? Most writers hate committing them to paper and mocking the failed attempts of well-considered authors has become an annual sport.

Those scenes that the genre promises require special attention because it's so easy to fall back on the familiar or to slip when trying something new. Of course, the answer is to look at each one closely, respond honestly to what is written, and rework the whole thing (including scenes that lead in or follow) when necessary. How do you know you need to do this? If you didn't tell the truth. If you didn't find what makes you connect with the scene. If you fail to find something that's valid and that you never saw in a genre scene before.

It's demanding, but it should be. You have promises to keep.

What all this comes down to is having a level of openness to major revisions – to the attention they require, the exploration they demand, the daring and management of fear with which they must be approached, and the work. Sometimes, when your head is full of other stories to tell, that last – the work, the page one rewrite – can overwhelm you. Think of the time. Think of the possibility of putting in all those hours and still failing. Then forget about all that.

I probably can't prove this, but my strong suspicion is that most great works challenged writers to go into places that went beyond uncomfortable to the limits of intolerable. I certainly have found that with some of the things I written about which I'm proudest this was the case. So keep this in mind:

If you pull off facing the toughest challenges that come up in writing, you have a good chance of creating the best work you can do. If you do not succeed and end up creating something that doesn't quite come together, you will certainly become a stronger, more insightful, more interesting, and more competent writer than you ever imagined you could.

I see that as a win-win, and I think it's a good argument for taking on the biggest challenges.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Revise for Readers 1 - Quick fixes for your story

I've long advocated Kurt Vonnegut's technique of writing a first draft for a specific reader. This immediately provides focus, pacing, and diction for your piece. Do this, and you are automatically well-positioned for revision.

Now, once you begin rewriting, it's good to think beyond telling the story to just one person. Now is the time to remember why people read stories (and watch movies). So, without pretending that I'm presenting an exhaustive list, I'll review some of the reasons people hunger for stories and suggests some quick fixes that might elevate your work. (Next week, I'll dig into repairs that take more time and effort.)

First, people don't come to your stories with the idea of engaging in labor. Yes, someone reading mystery will be trying to work out whodunit along the way, and an SF reader may put an effort into imagining your strange new world. But in general, you are responsible for doing the work. This means that if you don't make things clear, readers will stop reading. Beta readers with red pens are your best allies in making sure that whatever you wrote comes through. Naturally, you also have an obligation to choose appropriate vocabulary and pay attention to the rules of grammar and spelling.

Diversion is probably the main reason why people sit down with the novel. They are looking for a break, a bit of fun, and some entertainment. Much of this depends upon your initial concepts and character development (not easy to fix). Let me suggest three fixes to a complete draft that might take a story that is intrinsically interesting and make it better.
  1. Include hooks and cliffhangers. Anything that will raise questions, engage, and keep readers interested will make your story more compelling and entertaining.
  2. Look closely at where and how you revealed important information. Aristotle talks about the value of astonishment in storytelling. To me, this means riddling the work with (appropriate and fair) surprises. Withhold choice bits of information as long as possible without cheating. And frame these in ways that set them off.
  3. Get rid of the boring parts (as Elmore Leonard advised). One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to highlight the sections of your manuscript that are back story and narration. Especially at the beginning of a story, these can drag and may be important only to the writer. Getting them into the draft is good and necessary work. Leaving them there can be tedious for your reader.
The use of adverbs, adjectives, and "junk" words like "that," can also rob your story of energy and make it drag.

Knowledge/perspective/humor – Lots of people come to stories to learn and to see their worlds differently. Research can be a good route to providing intriguing details that people will want to remember (as long as you don't overdo it). Both the perspectives of people who are different from the readers and your perspectives, if you see the world in a skewed way as most humorists do, can be the reason why the work attracts readers in the first place. Add something to the sound of the language (which may be more than a quick fix) and you have most of the components of voice. Why do editors and agents always talk about how important voices to them? Because it's important to readers.

Lessons/rehearsal for life — In a first draft, it's quite likely that there will be elements to a story that provides a good model for dealing with situations we all face, but these may occur in order that is random. It may also be that there are events that distract from the model, diminishing its value. Here, provided you have a good handle on the lessons embedded in your work and you have the courage to reshape it, the solution is to take out the parts that, although interesting, are not essential. Then, with the remainder, reorder so the stakes escalate for the protagonist.

Promises – The most obvious thing to check for here is making sure all the expected genre events are included. (A showdown in a Western, for instance. Or a first kiss and a romance.) This means you have to know your genre well, understand how to present these incidents in a fresh way, and take the time to inspect your work to be sure you didn't leave them out or otherwise shortchange the reader.

I could add to this list. Sometimes it doesn't take much to create more empathy for characters or take something unexpected out of the premise or refine the language so it's more lyrical. But the point is that it is worthwhile to keep in mind reader expectations and check to see that they are fulfilled before you finish revising your manuscript.

Now, sometimes more than a quick fix is needed. And that's what I'll cover in my next post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It's All About the Stories - Five years of boosting productivity

I've met so many people with talent. With stories to tell. With insights and perspectives that need to be shared. Caught in productivity traps.

That has been the driving force for this blog. Now, five years later, I’ve had the chance to publish over 300 posts on the techniques and practices that can set imaginations free, open doors, and make writing fun. I’ve been delighted to see writers break bad habits and get stalled manuscripts moving. For me, this has created opportunities to teach and speak, but the real joy is seeing people live the lives they have dreamed of (or, at least, get a little closer).

So, after 140,000 page views (about 75 a day on average), I’m hoping some of you feel this is a milestone worth celebrating. And what better way to observe this occasion than by pointing you to the most popular posts and series of these five years? So, here they are…

Most Popular Posts

Plotting for Pantsers 2 - Build your storytelling muscles

NaNoWriMo Success 2 - Fast Drafting

Bigger 4 - Creating Endings That Buzz

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks


Most Popular Series (other than those that include one of the "Most Popular Posts")

Six Ideas on How to Prepare to Write Productively

Stories Off the Leash (7 posts, beginning with this one)

Write Who You Are (6 posts, beginning with this one)

Fast Reads = Better Stories (5 posts, beginning with this one)

A Pantser's Guide to Revision (5 posts, beginning with this one)


Now, those are just my writings. I have had the help of many a writer in the form of interviews and guest posts. In fact, the most popular post of any kind by far is one by Scrivener maven Gwen Hernandez. It has been viewed over 8,000 times, more than the next two posts combined.

What’s next? A lot more posts. I haven’t come close to running out of material (probably because I’m writing all the time and facing the same challenges you are). I’ll continue to teach the old courses and to develop new ones.

I am well along in writing How to Write Fast: Productive story drafting. It should be available in September. I’ve outlined two follow-up books on revision and leveraging your story premise. To support my move into publishing, I’ll make a newsletter available. This will have announcements of my ventures, but the heart of it will be the kind of exercises, templates, and checklists that have been valuable to my students. I’ll also include some giveaways (Want me to be your productivity nag for a month?) and the opportunity for some subscribers to become beta readers for the books. I haven't started building a mailing list yet, but, if you're interested in the newsletter, send me a note at howtowritefast@gmail.com Put newsletter in the subject line.

Finally, thanks to all my readers, followers, commenters, retweeters, sharers, and contributors for all the joy this blog has brought me over the years.
 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut

Last time, I introduced the idea of identifying and exploring your story topic as a way to deepen your connection with your work, find interesting development options, and make the experience more coherent for readers and audiences.

After having done this in a shoot from the hip way, I've reworked my process to interrogate the work and create a clear statement I can use as a guide. I ask questions, and then I write a brief essay (usually about 100 words) about the story's topic.

I've found this so useful that it has become a standard practice for me (most often after a draft is complete, but it could be done as part of development beforehand). To illustrate it, I'll work through the questions with a well-known (and wonderful) story, that of the film Casablanca. If you don't know the movie, watch it right away. It is one of the classics for good reasons.

What does the story explore? Though I could (and have) come up with other topics, the main one here seems to be connection and responsibility.

What does the character explore? Initially, Rick, the protagonist has no connections and is not interested in developing them.

“What is your nationality?” “…I’m a drunkard.”
“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
"I stick my neck out for nobody." 

But Rick has loved before, and the possibility of love causes him to look at that connection, friendships, empathy for those in trouble, his hunger for justice, and, ultimately, the pivotal issue of his time.

"I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

Rick also experiences the benefits of connection. Again, the change is dramatic, from

“Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

to

“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

Who is the audience? Upon it's release, I think most people saw Casablance as a propaganda piece (Variety called it, "splendid anti-Axis propaganda") aimed rousing an American audience to fight the Nazis. One pointed remark:

“I’d bet they’re asleep in New York. I’d bet they’re asleep all over America…”

But the story reaches far beyond its own time into ours. The audience is not just reluctant Americans looking for an adventure story. It is one of the great works of art, inspiring generations, worldwide. 

At this point in my analysis, I take a fresh look at the theme. To me topics are subsidiary to themes, so this provides a check. My own take on Casablanca's theme is that sacrifice humanizes us (which seems to fit my stated topic).
So...

What is the story about? If the pain and loss we suffer has meaning to us, it opens us to experiencing the miracle of living.

Why does it matter?  Viktor Frankl introduced the idea of Logotherapy, with the premise humans "are motivated by a will to meaning, an inner pull to find a meaning in life." With meaning, "people will be willing to sacrifice and people will find strengths they did not know they had when they think there is something more important than their comfort." According the the Victor Frankl Institute, "we can help those who are suffering by turning their attention away from themselves and on to something they care for enough to want to do it for its own sake, not for any personal gain."

How does this relate to me? My life has not been free from discomforts and suffering. I also am deeply empathetic when faced with the suffering of others. Making sense of suffering, finding ways to come to grips with suffering, to find and express, and to create and maintain routes to positive values leads to more happiness, acceptance, and social connection in my life.

What are my touch points? I'm not going to get overly personal here, but I do not set limits as I work through the questions and the essays for my own works. In private notes for this work, I would undoubtedly reflect on particular losses, injustices, frustrations, and grieving in my own experience and the experiences of those I know well.

Evidence for the topic (connection and responsibility).
Note: This is not about proving this topic is a good choice for Casablanca. It is about identifying instances that explore the stated topic. For a work that is not mine, the list may be set, but I always try to go further with any story I've written, even if the draft is "complete." Without being comprehensive, in Casablanca:

1 Rick sacrifices love for a higher cause.
2 Rick rescues a woman from Louie's clutches by rigging the roulette wheel.
3 Rick risks the wrath of the Nazis (via the Vichy government) by allowing the Marseilles to be sung.

Etc.

Emotional element.
I like to call this out specifically. People go to fictional books and movies for the emotional experience. Finding that within the topic and stating it gives it prominence.

Casablanca is rich in emotion. Most obviously, with the love story, which includes deceit, betrayal, reconciliation, passion, and caring. But connection also shows up in terms of righting injustices that easily might be ignored, small kindnesses, friendship, loyalty, respect, honor, and more.

What the ending needs (to accomplish). The joy of Casablanca is Rick, who had become a loner, connecting with others, from the individual level to people in community (at an historic level). I love the way this is expressed not just with sacrificing love for the higher cause of defeating the Nazi, but with something more immediate:

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

You may want to shuffle the questions around and even revisit your answers as your understanding of your story deepens. Your next step is to write the essay. I always write as if I am sharing my insights with a specific person I think would be interested. I'm not trying to convince them my topic is the only key or even the best choice for illuminating and exploring the work. The only qualification is that it resonates with me personally and I have the urge to share it.

This, to me, seems reasonable. I want whatever story I'm writing to reach me on a emotional level and to be something I have a passion to share with at least one other person. Often, when I write, the essence is known, if not articulated, in the first draft. But the essay challenges my understanding and ensures that it is clear enough to communicate well, without my missing major elements.

In practice, this enhances my enjoyment of the work, especially as I enter the revision process. I hope you find it useful as well.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic -- What are you talking about?

Somewhere between the hook for a story and the theme, there exists (usually) a topic. This came home to me as I binge watched Nurse Jackie. I have very little doubt that underneath the general subject of addiction, the writers had deliberately made each episode an exploration of codependence or one of the 12 steps or deceit, etc., etc.

Now having a specific topic did not constrain the writers in terms of characters or overall season arcs. And the humor in each episode was not damaged by the serious intentions. These are terrific, well-written, well-acted episodes. But, I suspect, deliberately examining topics — either before or after drafts for written – provided concepts and coherence that made these stories powerful.

I looked at other series with regard to topics. The Sopranos seems to deal repeatedly with answering the question, can people change? And a series of challenges to attempts to change were explored within and across episodes. Breaking Bad, to me, was all about looking at the many dimensions of power and the possibilities (and consequences) of corruption.

Films often have the investigation of topics driving their plots, too. One of my favorites, Amadeus, seems to explore on one level what it means to be gifted, but on a more dominant level the toxic properties of envy.

Why does this matter to you as a writer? For one thing, understanding the topic – whether it emerged from a fast draft or was determined ahead of time — suggests story options and realistic plot turns. A topic is something that can be explored and reflected upon in an abstract way and then realized within your story world.

In fact, if you identify the topic within your story, it's likely to activate your curiosity, and that will connect you more closely with your story and enhance your commitment to doing it justice.

What you feel about your story and what drives you to write it comes through in one of the most essential qualities of good storytelling — emotional involvement. One thing I do once identified topic is look for touch points within my own life. If my brain came up with a reason to write about the topic, it's a sure bet that I'll find reasons that touched my heart and, probably, take me to the scary places where the best writing waits.

Now, identifying a topic can have its drawbacks. It can be all too easy to have characters mouth conclusions and ideas that don't fit. If the topic of a particular episode emerges in the writing, it may be that it does not fit the overall concept for a series. Especially when a topic leads to a passionate argument, it can make it difficult to edit. The structure of your work needs to be be less about making a point and more about telling a good tale, and that can be a challenge when you've become attached to your topic. You don't want to turn your story into an essay.

However, you may want to have some questions that allow you to write an essay that can inform your storytelling. And that will be the subject of next week's post.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 5 - Revealing questions

In many cases, if you want to know about someone, you ask them questions and listen to their answers. Most people interview each other when they first meet. They get the basics, like names and professions. They may spur conversation with a compliment (love that necklace) or by mentioning an observation (sports/university logos on clothing, an accent).

And, if you have tuned your perceptions, you pay attention to the tone of the replies, the facial expressions, the hesitations, and the body language. You also take into account the context -- when and where you are asking and who else is around.

Interviewing characters is also a good way to get to know them. You can ask standard questions, and I've offered some "tell me about" interview prompts in a previous post. I'll add to that list here, but first I'd like to tie things up for the Bonding With Your Story's Characters series.

Throughout, I've said to know characters is to connect with them. In real life, you know people by what they do and say (and what they don't do and say). That means listening, watching, questioning, researching (through others and through artifacts, including online files), working with them and asking them questions.

If your subjects are actual living people, you probably can do all of these (with some exceptions for inaccessible celebrities). If your models are deceased, you can only research them.

If your characters are based on real people, they can be fictionalized, which may open up everything. It isn't unusual for me to end up listening to and observing my characters (whether I like it or not), and I understand this is common for a lot of fiction writers, once they get some understanding of their subjects. Working with characters was covered briefly in previous posts in this series. That takes an active suspension of disbelief and a developed and disciplined imagination.

If your characters are not based on real people, you can't research them directly, but you can dig into the lives of real people to get answers and examples. And then it is up to you to integrate them into the whole character in a credible way.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is what the characters are thinking and what they are aware of. With real people, we may make assumptions about these, but we never really know what's going on in their minds. With fictional characters, the potential for absolute answers is there, and it is one of the joys of fiction to get perspectives that we can't access in real life.

Since I wrote the "tell me about" post two years ago, I've come up with some additional questions I value. Pick out a character, sit down with her in a coffee shop, and see if any of these questions get you anywhere:

What do you, character, need/want?
What is your biggest flaw (on the Seven Deadly Sins level)? When have you demonstrated it?
Why are you appealing? When have you demonstrated this?
Even if you don't know your family, what is your family role in the story? (This is especially valuable to find out when putting together characters for a series.)
What characterizes your connections (relationships) with others? (Collaborating? Provoking? Dominating? Helping? Organizing? Listening? Persuading?)
How powerful are you and how do you acquire and maintain power?
What characterizes your conflicts with others? (Or do you avoid conflict?)
What pushes you to the limit or triggers out-of-control or anti-social behavior? Have you experienced important traumas? Do you have acute sensitivities?
Tell me about your deepest secret(s).
What do you need to find out in the story?
What do you need to learn in the story?
Why are you distinctive?
    •    Style
    •    Skills
    •    Defects/flaws
    •    Perspectives
    •    History
    •    Magic (even if this is not fantasy or paranormal)
Why are you surprising?
What obligations do you think you have? What obligations do you actually have?
What is your work (and what are your attitudes toward work)?
What is your code of honor and what do you value? 

That's the set of questions I'm using now to explore my characters. Sometimes, I fill out what I think the answers will be before I imagine meeting with the character. What I've discovered is they often will surprise me by what they know, what they don't know, and what I got wrong.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 4 - Sidekicks, best friends, and minions

A special word this time for the best friends, minions, and spear carriers who fill out your casts or populate the imaginary spaces of your novels. These are the valued ones who are held for ransom… or callously disposed of by villains.

Why should you worry, as a writer, about connecting with your secondary characters?

It all comes down to creating the best experiences for readers and audiences. While it is a mistake to have a secondary character who overshadow your protagonist (and probably your antagonist), if you don't know them well enough to allow them to credibly play their roles, your story will be diminished.

A wise old man or crone can point out the path the hero or heroine must take. The confidant becomes the proxy for readers anxious to know what's on the protagonist's mind. The princess must be saved. The sidekick must carry the message. The femme fatale must lure the main character into danger.

Secondary characters can turn the story. They can intensify the stakes. It is usually not the main characters, but they who state the theme . Secondary characters illustrate the existence of a larger world. They also help the writer, through techniques like comic relief, to manage the emotional pacing of the story.

As I did with protagonists and villains, I will go through each of the nine dimensions with the secondary characters, but not with all of them. That could be a series of articles in and of itself. I’ll just sample the list as I need to so I can make my points. The rest will be left to you.

So here's the list:

Investment – If you get too involved with your secondary characters, you'll burn a lot of writing time. That's your choice, but the danger is you’ll become too attached. It's easy to unintentionally shift the spotlight away from your main characters if you fill a notebook with interviews and observations on the heroine’s best friend.

You should, however, invest enough so your secondary character is slightly more vivid in your mind that might be appropriate. Everything in a story is seen “as through a glass darkly,” so a little exaggeration is warranted. But, when the waiter delivering a glass of water to your hero explodes off the page, it distorts your plot and sets up inappropriate reader expectations.

One big exception here is what you write in a series. If your next book will focus in on this secondary character – a very popular approach for sequels of romance novels — getting the reader interested is part of marketing your next book.

Communication – I like to explore secondary characters within the contexts of their roles — both their official tasks and their relationships with protagonists and antagonists. This means I often do very limited interviews with these characters. I explore how they themselves feel and think about these two roles.

Commonality – Here, I'm mostly interested in giving myself touch points. To avoid too closely identifying with these characters, that often means grabbing aspects of people I know casually. People I meet once or know through others work best because, in these cases, I will have noticed something that clicks with me, but I don't have the full picture. Roger Zelazny created a secondary character in one of the Amber books who was clearly himself. What resulted was an amusing and memorable scene, but it pulled me out of the story. So be careful about taking a star turn yourself.

Concern — For children in jeopardy, damsels in distress, and other characters who motivate the acceptance of difficult missions, character change, and sacrifice on the part of your protagonists, it is essential that you, as a writer, have as much concern for them as your main characters do. Too often, I find in movies and television shows that the "prizes" who motivate heroes and heroines didn't seem worth it. For me, it makes all the anxiety and action come off as over-the-top and foolish.

Tolerance – What I love about secondary characters is that the more fleeting they are, the more obnoxious and ridiculous they can be. Annoyance is a powerful spice, especially when readers can put down books and viewers can change the channel or pop out the DVD. But in small amounts, especially in longer works, they can create zesty moments.

Reliability – The traits of a secondary character are limited. Be very careful about making them variable. Still, it can be done. For instance, it's very effective to have a minor rival congratulate the main character once the objective is achieved. It helps to underline and amplify the success by showing that even an enemy recognizes the victory. But generally we depend upon secondary characters to provide, sounding boards, unchanging perspectives that respond in understandable ways to the actions, ideas, and comments of main characters.

Surprise/Mystery – See reliability above, with one additional idea: It is wonderful for your plot to be complicated, for obstacles to be made tougher, and for stakes to be raised because a friendly secondary character makes a mistake. Usually, though they may be helpful within their roles, they should not surprise the hero with something that makes life easier.

Mutual dependence – Yes, minions are disposable. But, you as a writer, should feel a little pain when they make their final departures. And it's even more true with characters who fill larger roles, but don't rise to the level of main characters. In every case, a secondary character should be there for a reason, and, as their creator, you can't be uncommitted. Be present, at least a little bit, even for the poor spear carriers.

Shared work/risk – While you can't let them take over, it can be good to give your secondary characters some latitude. Trust them (even if they are minions or femme fatales).

One more thing to think about. Casting is one of the most important factors in the success of a movie or television show. An important point of advice for scriptwriters, therefore, is to make sure that the roles that will make or break the production are written so that good actors will want to play the parts.

When you think about this in terms of either script or a novel, it means you as a writer are required to think beyond the plot value of most of your characters. No one wants to play device. Or read about a character who only serves a function. So don't shortchange your secondary characters because you're afraid they'll steal the show (or you don't think it's worth the bother).

Keep it interesting. Keep it fresh. Create stories that are bigger than the page or the screen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 3 - Shake hands with the devil

Building a good connection with your story's antagonist is tricky. Ignoring the humanity of a villain can result in creating a two-dimensional melodrama character or monster. But having too much empathy can make the villain's plans and attacks too moderate and cheat readers of all that the premise promises.

There is also the temptation to redeem the character, no matter how bad. In principle, some redemption at the end can work well. But in practice, it can fail miserably if the atonement isn't justified and earned by what happens in the story. Note: the character changing his or her mind does not count. There needs to be action.

Okay, with that warning in place, let's explore the villain using the dimensions I used for a hero in last week's post:

Investing in the antagonist by spending time with him or her can be disturbing. I remember how unsettling it was once for me when I realized a friend who came along with me on a grocery shopping trip was eating her way through the aisles and slipping items under her shirt. I get the same sort of unsettling feeling when I imagine myself doing normal activities with one of my story's villains. Who wants to go to the library with someone you randomly tears pages out of books? Or be a passenger in a car where the driver is texting?

Of course, many villains will act normally, even nobly, as they accompany you on typical, daily activities, but it's best if some of these provoke bad behaviors.

On communication, my questions tend to be not much different from what I ask other characters. However, I will try and slip in some bits that are likely to provide openings for bragging or which, with most characters, would lead to apologies. (In fact, sometimes I explicitly ask villains to say they're sorry – with interesting results.)

On concern, you may have are guest that I sometimes have problems with the villain's redemption. But I think it's reasonable to include, at a minimum, worry about whether even the worst of antagonists faces damnation. This means taking the time to truly imagine what damnation might mean for him work for her. Having that in your head will provide a valuable touch point as you seek to humanize your villain. I also like to figure out what sort of scenario might lead to self-destruction.

I don't think there's a good excuse for tolerating the worst behaviors of a villain. It's possible and valuable to understand why they do evil things, but if part of you doesn't prefer a very different choice, conflict can get muddied. (And if you think all actions are equally moral, I'm not sure I want to spend much time with you.)

I find, for myself, toleration of villains is more in the area of their tics and mannerisms, which often are irritating. It doesn't hurt at all to have an antagonist whose hypocrisy or bad manners or slovenly behavior bugs you. False charm is a pet peeve of mine, and I tend to include it in villains. Part of their job, after all, is to be irritating (in many, but not all cases). So, toleration here means hanging around with characters who bother you. And that's part of your job.

Reliability, for a villain, should mean that you can count on them to do anything to achieve the goal (often, just stopping the hero). Going deeper, means establishing the core behaviors that define who this villain is and why he or she does what they do. And, working from the outside in, I always try and see if there are any consistent triggers that can be included to provoke over-the-top and unavoidable reactions.

The villain's main job is to go further than is reasonable. This automatically means that surprises are part of what an antagonist brings to a story. With the best villains, I'm always asking, who does these things? Or, under the best of circumstances, how did he or she even think of doing that? I think mystery is less important for a villain unless you're working on a series. (With any kind of a continuing effort, it's even possible to hide the identity of the chief antagonist through the use of minions.)

You depend upon the villain to make things rough for the hero, and the villain depends upon you to allow that. I've been told that much comedy is driven by anger and contempt. And murder mysteries often begin with the desire by the writer to knock off an enemy. If you can summon such feelings within yourself, you'll have a simpler time letting your villains be as bad as they can be. If that's not easy for you, it might be useful to focus on what you owe this child of your imagination. The villain you created should be allowed to be everything you meant him or her to be. Try to be helpful. If you can't, then at least get out of the villain's way.

In my experience, most writers don't want to be identified with their villains. As a matter fact, they don't want to be identified with any embarrassing or nasty behaviors in their works. Inevitably, this happens. It's a risk you need to accept. In fact, it's very common for readers to ask writers if they had the same experiences, did the same things, and felt the same ways as specific characters, including villains. They also asked if they really are one of the characters in their stories.

Some writers go to great lengths to deny any real-world connections with characters, opinions, and events in their stories. It's fiction! Don't you get that?

But there is some commonality with all characters, and you can't stop people from jumping to conclusions on what is shared. The best reaction I've seen to this truth is a woman who writes a lot about sex and, even though I presume it's not true, constantly startles her readers with the answer, yes, I did do that. In fact, I've done everything you've read about in my books. Good for her. I suspect her readers know as much about the truth as the readers of those whose favorite authors constantly deny connections, but she definitely has a lot more fun.

So go to the dark side (in your imagination) with the bad guys in your stories. People assume he did anyway.

Overall, I think villains are more fun to connect with then heroes. In the next post, I'll explore the space in between, secondary characters.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 2 - Probing your hero until it hurts

Connecting with your characters can deepen your stories and keep you writing. Last time, I posted nine dimensions to consider, and here we'll go into the details with the protagonist in mind.

The biggest problem with building a connection with your protagonist is really getting to know him or her. Often, the protagonist has a lot in common with the writer, but even well-developed and individuated heroes and heroines are likely to feel familiar. After all, the writer wants readers to identify with protagonists, so sympathy as well as empathy is probably existed before the opening lines with written. And the protagonist gets a pass on probing analysis.

Often, it gets worse. The identification is so strong that the kind of test (good writers torture characters) that might reveal characters are avoided or mitigated.

Familiarity and identification mean that writers need to be deliberate and determined before they can truly know protagonists well enough to bond with them. Nick Lowe got it right (for stories, not friendships): "You've gotta be cruel to be kind."  So prepare to go through hell with your protagonist.
  • Investment - I recommend taking a visual approach to this. Consider a series of still photographs or a silent movie of your protagonist doing something (preferably physical) with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can imagine yourself participating, even better. So perhaps, you'll arm wrestle with your hero or cut in at a dance with your heroine. Then push this, by making the action unpleasant. A trip to the dentist would work. Or terrifying -- getting mugged. Three of these shared experiences will tell you a lot about your main character.
  • Communication - Now they can open their mouths. Warm your protagonist up. Get his or her confidence. Then say, "Tell me about your most embarrassing moment." Whatever they respond, follow up with a probing question. Make it open-ended, so they can't get away with a simple yes or no.
  • Commonality - This one is probably easy with the protagonist, and that's fine. You both went to the same college? Are baseball fans? Good. But see if you also share less admirable experiences in your own life (getting arrested? bullying a sibling?). Or list out your guilty pleasures and see if these appeal to your protagonist, too.
  • Concern - Yes. You already care about your character. Note that. Then imagine the worst thing that might happen to him or her (either in or beyond the current story) and spend some time worrying about these happening and imagining the feelings that would result.
  • Tolerance - By now, darker aspects of your hero or heroine (or maybe yourself) should be evident. Don't be afraid. Don't be judgmental. Forgive. Respect. Things will all turn out okay in the end.
  • Reliability - Has the core of your character changed? Is the reason he or she was chosen as the story's protagonist no longer valid? Take another look. Sit with it a while. See if you need to tweak. And remember you can always create a new protagonist, use this one in a different story, or turn the character who was supposed to be the hero into a villain. (This last could be a great move that takes your story to a higher level.)
  • Surprise/Mystery - This usually comes out in the writing. And the best way I know to evoke it with a protagonist -- the character you are most likely to believe you know in and out -- is to make a list of ten to twenty possible responses to a story challenge. The one that is the most shocking, that you never would have guessed your character would have done, may be your best choice. Be open to the possibility. (And, of course, if surprising options pop up spontaneously, don't dismiss them. Even when they seem crazy.)
  • Mutual dependence - This is the part that often falls away for plotters. The main character just goes through the motions. But it's the emotions that count. Your protagonist owes you more than this. Make sure he or she pays back your diligence in providing the best story you can with true responses. If you and your characters avoid being vulnerable and counting on each other, your readers will be cheated.
  • Shared work/risk - Doubt can be a killer for a writer. Or a wonderful tool. It is when things could go wrong (or seem to be going wrong) in the story that you and the characters need to work together. The scenes you struggle with are the ones that force you and your main character to explore more deeply and take chances on. These are the scenes that make or break your story and establish the strongest relationships with your heroes and heroines. Strive together. Be unflinching in the face of disaster.
Okay, I didn't say this ahead of time, but putting your character through some of these exercises puts you through tough experiences, too. So do the work, then do something nice for yourself. Writers who go into dark places with characters they love need to build healthy self-care resources and to indulge in them. Keep yourself sane. Keep writing fun.

Next week, the villains -- which should be less painful.